New Brunswick

End of term and ‘end of route’

DAVID FOLSTER May 4 1981
New Brunswick

End of term and ‘end of route’

DAVID FOLSTER May 4 1981

End of term and ‘end of route’

New Brunswick

DAVID FOLSTER

For much of the year, Hay’s Brook is a mere trickle that winds and burbles through wooded farm country just south of Woodstock, N.B. In springtime, however, rain and melting snow turn the stream into a miniature torrent and a spectacular 30metre cascade down the face of a sheer rock ledge. For local residents, a trek to Hay’s Falls is almost as regular an early-spring ritual as going fiddleheading. Even the 2.4 km hike into the spot from the Trans-Canada Highway has its appeal: it lies along an historic Indian portage once used by Maliseet people as they travelled between the rich hunting and fishing grounds of Maine and their ancient Saint John River village of Meductic (“end of route”) nearby.

It was to this idyllic place that five college students were drawn on Easter Sunday seeking fresh air and a respite from exams. The quintet, four from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and the fifth a friend visiting from Ontario’s Queen’s University, hiked to Hay’s Falls and, though the day was chilly, elected to stay overnight. For their campsite they chose a narrow plateau at the top of the falls with a compelling view of the surrounding treetops. It was a fatal choice. By dawn Easter Monday three of the students—Janet Taylor, 18, of St. Lambert, Que., Paul Graham, 19, of Westmount, Que., and Neis Anderson, 22, of Greenbelt, Md.—were dead, victims of separate and apparently accidental plunges from the rocky precipice. Badly shaken but surviving were Kevin Sanford, 18, of St. Laurent, Que., and Michael Epplett, 20, a student at Queen’s.

Early reports of the affair, partly fuelled by scanty and sometimes speculative information from the RCMP, cloaked the deaths in mystery and inevitably sparked dark rumors. One newspaper reported a fight between two of the students had led to one of the deaths; there was also speculation that drugs and alcohol had been involved. The rumor mill wasn’t slowed, either, when it was learned the two survivors had driven 80 km to Fredericton early Monday morning before reporting the accidents or, back at the scene later, when a reporter saw the RCMP clamp handcuffs on the pair. Not until late the following afternoon did the police release their official version of events.

Based on their investigation, including the questioning of Epplett and Sanford, the Mounties provided a sparse reconstruction of a chilling sequence that began in the dark sometime around 4 a.m. Monday. Anderson was strolling around the campsite when he lost his balance and fell off the cliff. Graham and Sanford went after him, taking a path some distance from the falls that led to the bottom of the drop, then starting up the cliff face. Sanford found Anderson and called for help to Graham, from whom he had become separated. As he pulled Anderson from the waterfall, Sanford next came upon Graham’s body, which he also retrieved. He then returned to the top of the cliff where Janet Taylor was still in her sleeping bag, her head just a few inches from the edge. A little later, Sanford said, he heard her stir and, looking up, saw her go over the falls. Said the RCMP: “We are assuming she attempted to crawl out of the sleeping bag and fell.”

The Mounties declared they had ruled out foul play and were not contemplating charges. The alleged fight, they said, was actually no more than friendly horseplay between Anderson and Graham and had ended well before the accidents. Sanford and Epplett had returned to Fredericton before revealing what happened, an officer explained, because they were confused, upset and, being unfamiliar with the area, didn’t know an RCMP detachment existed in Woodstock, 16 km in the opposite direction. Why had police put handcuffs on them when they were returned to the site? “You had three dead people and two unknown quantités. It’s a basic police procedure,” said Sgt. J. F. Jory of the Woodstock detachment.

The tragedy, naturally, shocked the UNB campus where the three dead students were well-known. Anderson was a top student who would have received his degree in civil engineering later in May. He and Taylor, his girl-friend, were both members of a university climbing club and had spent part of the Easter Sunday testing their skills on the rocks of the waterfall. “They were two lovely young people,” said Woodstock resident Allan Dibblee who, with his family, struck up a conversation with the pair at Hay’s Falls Sunday afternoon. “We were absolutely appalled when we heard about the accident.”

The university, meanwhile, expressed dismay about media coverage of the deaths. “The manner in which this terrible accident has been reported by the media is a matter of some disappointment and chagrin,” said UNB President James Downey. And indeed, the way in which tentative conclusions got into print and onto the airwaves as fact and near-fact did serve as an object lesson in how not to report a story—a lesson for press and police alike. At week’s end, decision on an inquest into the deaths was still held up pending receipt of pathology reports from RCMP laboratories in Sackville, N.B. But the triple tragedy had already turned the usually exuberant wind-down of the academic year into, as Downey said, “a solemn occasion.”